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Speed skating is an Olympic sport, dominated by a limited number of countries. It is deeply rooted in Dutch and Scandinavian culture. For hundreds of years, skating was a form of fast transport over frozen lakes and rivers. As far back as the 13th century, communications were enhanced by skating from village to village across frozen Dutch rivers. In 17th century Holland, people were already competing in ice skating races. In 1889, the Netherlands hosted the first World Championships, joining up the Dutch, Russians, Americans and English. Dutchman Jaap Eden (the Amsterdam ice rink is called after him) was the first to set a world record. He skated 1500 meters in 2:35.0 on January 11, 1893 in Groningen.

The record was recognised by the International Skating Union ISU, as the federation is still called. When speed skating was introduced in the first Olympic Winter Games of 1924 in Chamonix, the Scandinavians dominated the event. The women's events were integrated in the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Games.

Speed skating is carried out counter-clockwise on an oval ice track of 400 meters length. Two skaters at a time combat the clock. They have their own lane but cross each other every round (the skater going to the inside lane has priority), so skaters have completed the same distance at the finish line. Times are recorded in hundreds of seconds.

Regular distances are 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m for men. Women (and juniors) usually skate 3000m instead of 10,000m. At World, continental and national Championships, the total average time on four distances decides the winner. There are two different types of Championships: all-round and sprint. All-round tournaments include 500m, 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m (or 3000m for women). Sprinters compete in just 500m and 1000m, distances that both have to be staged twice.

A list of current world records:

Exactly four men were world champion all-round speed skating at least four times: Oscar Mathisen (Norway, 5 times in 1908-1915), Clas Thunberg (Finland, 5 times in 1923-1931), Ivar Ballangrud (Norway, 4 times in 1926-1938) and Rintje Ritsma (the Netherlands, 4 times in 1995-2001). Only Mathisen actually did this three times in a row, but so did Jaap Eden (the Netherlands, 1893-1896), Hjalmar Andersen (Norway, 1950-1952), Ard Schenk (the Netherlands, 1970-1972) and Eric Heiden (USA, 1977-1979). The last non-European to grab the World Title was American Eric Flaim in 1988.

The best known tracks for speed skating in the world are the Olympic Oval in Calgary (Canada), Thialf in Heerenveen (the Netherlands), Vikingskipet in Hamar (Norway) and M-Wave in Nagano (Japan). Until 1991, the Medeo track at Alma Ata (Soviet Union, now in Kazakhstan) at high altitude used to be a guarantee for world records. Next in line for eternal skating fame is the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City (USA).

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